With the cuts made yesterday, the forward group for the Hurricanes is beginning to look clearer and so are the possible line combinations. There's a very good chance the lines change over the season but it's good to have an idea what the "main" ones will be at the beginning of the year. Ideally, you want the your top two forward lines to produce a lot of offense with one being able to take on tough competition while another gets the benefit of protection. In the bottom-six, you want a third line to be able to produce secondary scoring and have the ability to take tough zone starts while the fourth line does the same but is depended on less for scoring. The Canes biggest trouble is going to be filling out those top two lines to make them a legitimate offensive threat, but I've come up with some line ideas which may work.
Alexei Ponikarovsky - Eric Staal - Zac Dalpe
This line's been together for some of pre-season and I'm in favor of keeping it that way for at least the start of the year. Dalpe has been getting top-six minutes in training camp and has been very impressive so far, so I think he's earned his chance in the top-six to start the season. The first line is a definite possibility for him as he could really benefit from playing with Staal. Then there's Ponikarovsky who is capable of playing against tough competition and taking advantage of strong linemates so he is a good fit here, too. As for how this line is used, I would not shelter them from the other team's top lines but I'd give them some offensive zone starts. About 48-52%, which is usually the amount that Staal takes on. What concerns me here is throwing Dalpe into the wolves against other team's top lines, but if he can't handle it then we could sub him for Tuomo Ruutu or someone else.
Jussi Jokinen - Tuomo Ruutu - Jeff Skinner
Here's the line I've been preaching all summer long. Having Staal and Sutter's line taking on the tougher assignments allows Paul Maurice to give this line easier assignments. Skinner performed well against above average competition but started most of his shifts in the offensive zone. Jokinen and Ruutu weren't given terribly sheltered minutes but I think they could thrive in this kind of role. All three have a lot of scoring upside and were very successful last season in terms of creating chances, so I don't think there is any reason to change that. Giving them an advantage with more offensive zone starts will lead to great things, in my opinion. One problem we see here is that Ruutu's biggest issue as a center is the inability to win face-offs and Skinner wasn't much better. I feel face-offs are an overrated stat but if Ruutu, Skinner and Jokinen can't win more than 45% of their draws then that will eventually be a problem.
Chad LaRose - Brandon Sutter - Jiri Tlusty
I'm expecting this line to face the opposition's toughest competition and get a lot of defensive zone starts. Sutter and LaRose have done this for the last couple of years and are capable in this role. Tlusty is a question mark but after Bowman and Boychuk were sent back to Charlotte, this spot could be his to lose. Why him over Anthony Stewart? For one, I'm skeptical of how Stewart can do in a shutdown role because he was not a good defensive player in Atlanta and was awful territorially. Tlustly is not much better at creating offense but at the very least, he prevents other teams from creating chances in his own end, played in a defensive role last season and faced above-average competition. He's also been very good in training camp so I am fine with starting the year with him on the third line. Although, Ponikarovsky might be placed into this role if he can't take advantage of playing on the first line.
Anthony Stewart - Tim Brent - Patrick Dwyer
I'm tempted to give these three a lot of defensive zone starts, but I don't think they will be seeing tough competition. Most teams either protect their fourth line or use them in a defensive role. Here we'll probably see a mix of both. Dwyer is a solid defensive player, Brent can win face-offs and Stewart has the potential to take advantage of weak match-ups, so I'm not entirely sure how the fourth line will be used. Either way, no one here appears to be a complete liability so they are going to see at least 8-10 minutes a game. Personally I would like to see them take a lot of tough draws but I wouldn't be comfortable placing them against the opponent's top lines. That role should go to the third line. Brent and Dwyer will likely see time on the PK, though.
These seem to be the line combinations the coaches are rolling with in the pre-season and I don't have much of a problem with them in another week or two, so we'll see how things progress from here on out. Carolina has a lot of capable defensive forwards on the team and I feel that we should take advantage of it by sheltering our second line to give us more scoring depth. It will also be interesting to see how Dalpe plays against tougher competition if he's placed on the first line.